Governments are fond of small, manageable wars, where victory is assured—such as the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya. Such adventures are ideal for revving up enthusiastic media support for its policies. Some “wars” have the added advantage of never being over. The so-called wars on drugs and on terrorism, for instance, are available to justify any manner of intervention. In late July, the Reagan administration dispatched a large contingent of US military to Bolivia, purportedly to smash that country’s cocaine production facilities. When asked if this dispatch of US military might was “in the national security interest,” President Reagan replied with regal savoir faire that “Anything we do is in our national security interest.”
This seems to reflect the perspective of the major media too. Just days after Congress approved the Reagan administration’s contra campaign against Nicaragua, the airwaves pulsated with breathless reports of the military forces deployed to counter a terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty. We could not detect even a slight pause to reflect on the brazen juxtaposition of American independence and Washington’s determination to crush the independence of a small neighboring state.
It has become nearly impossible to distinguish the journalists and news commentators from the people paid directly by the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department to propagate this sort of hysteria. A July 8 broadcast on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered provides a classic instance of media incitement of popular paranoia. “A suicide squad of Libyan guerrillas slips into Mexico,” the story begins. “They wade across a remote stretch of the Rio Grande, holding their automatic weapons and explosives high over their heads. The plan: make their way to Houston and blow up a shopping mall, killing dozens of rich imperialists in exacting vengeance for the US raid on Libya.” Reporter John Burnett readily admits that his lurid lead “may sound far-fetched,” but this poses no restraint upon the fantasy that unfolds. Back in January, Washington sent out the word that the Border Patrol should establish SWAT teams “capable of handling a stand-off with terrorists.” Burnett takes us to an “enlightening lecture” for the Border SWATs in which a former Marine drill sergeant repeats to the patrolmen that terrorists “go after women in supermarkets.” Border patrol and immigration officials “have been instructed to watch for certain ‘terrorist profiles,’ such as a Middle Easterner.” In one recent incident, Mexican police responding to a US Border Patrol request arrested a dozen Arabs and Turks in a Mexican town near the US border. It turns out they had come to Mexico for the World Cup soccer matches and were planning to visit relatives in the land of the free. The Mexican authorities apologized, but “the Border Patrol wants it to be known that if they had been terrorists, the Border Patrol would have been ready for them.”
The government role in setting the media’s agenda is formidable. President Ronald Reagan, whose own media skills are legion, is on record with the proposition that “the truth” can and should be “attractively packaged.” One of the president’s favorite package-words is “peace.” A new ballistic missile for launching nuclear warheads that can annihilate entire cities is labelled a “peacemaker.” US troops were in Lebanon on a “peacekeeping” mission. One of the most successful deployments of the word, one that transcends administrations, is use of the phrase “peace process” to characterize US policy towards the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US government is publicly committed to the proposition that there should be a negotiated, political settlement involving mutual recognition, withdrawal from occupied territories, and a formal end to the existing state of war. The press has persistently failed to evaluate Washington’s real record—its support for the most belligerent and truculent Israeli behavior and its contemptuous dismissal of Palestinian negotiating proposals. One Reagan administration official recently told Middle East Policy Survey, “We say we are still committed to ‘land for peace,’ but don't you believe it.” There seems to be little reason to fear that the media will stop believing.
Sam Smith, editor of Washington’s Progressive Review, recently called our attention to William Shirer’s description of government/media interaction in another time and place. Shirer worked for many years as a correspondent in Germany under Hitler, and in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich he described the impact of attractively packaged news: “Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers…and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often muddled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda.”